Ad libitum is Latin for "at one's pleasure."
Yet many sportscasters think of anything but pleasure when faced with the need to ad-lib, the abbreviated form of the word. Ad-libbing is often considered the sportscaster's equivalent to walking the tightrope without a net. You have to perform extemporaneously—live or taped—without the security of notes, a teleprompter, or script of any kind.
Actors do it. Comedians do it. Jazz musicians revel in it.
Play-by-play announcers ad-lib as a matter of course, yet much of what they do comes as part of a certain rhythm or cadence. It includes a certain percentage of set descriptions or phrases that become a regular, repeated part of their lexicon.
Anchors frequently ad-lib highlights and scores, by choice when reading their copy or when forced to if the teleprompter fails. Reporters will ad-lib during live or taped standups from the field or court. Studio hosts and panelists will ad-lib large portions of their show while sports talk hosts will generally perform for an entire shift with perhaps a page or two of notes.
"In this day and age, if you can't ad-lib and think on your feet and do a good live shot without referring to notes, then you should be a producer or writer or something else," says Ed Kilgore, a sportscaster for some 40 years and member of the Buffalo Broadcasting Hall of Fame. "Ad-libbing is one of the single most important skills of being a television sportscaster in this day and time."
"I have to be honest with you," says David Schuster, a sports reporter and talk show host at Chicago's WSCR 670 The Score. "[Early in my career] I was a little nervous ad-libbing. But it takes time. Most of it is just knowing your subject and being able to communicate. If you know what you're talking about you can pretty much ad-lib almost anything."
- Overall prerequisites to becoming good at ad-libbing include:
- Thinking the thought
- Relax, relate, concentrate
- Thorough knowledge of your subject
- Practice, practice, practice
When producing a short standup that's to be taped in the field, keep the two or three points you want to include in that standup in your mind and just connect the dots by using complete sentences. Longer live shots often come as answers to predetermined or open-ended questions from an anchor. In that case, use the same principle as shorter taped standup, only be ready to ad-lib perhaps 30 to 45 seconds or more, writing the important points on a notepad and/or rehearsing it beforehand helps. Just remember that you'll be live so even if you make a mistake or stumble, keep going.
"The important thing," says Jerod Smalley, a television sports director in Columbus, Ohio, "is to keep it simple. Then you'll perform better around the most important facts that people need to know. If you make it so complex that you try to get in too much in a short period of time, you're just not going to perform it very well. You'll stumble around and maybe get some things wrong."
The key is, don't be afraid to ad-lib. Be sure to practice whenever you can. Reps, as we've stated before, are key. Do it whenever you have time, as much as you can. Simply jot down several key points to an imaginary story on a notepad, stand there with a microphone or some sort of prop, and do it again and again.